Indians Opening Day outlook

Indians Opening Day outlook

Externally, the Indians might not get quite as much hype as they did a year ago.

But internally, the club's expectations for itself couldn't be higher.

The lessons learned from a particularly long and brutal fourth-place season in 2006 are one factor in the Indians' optimism that they'll be in the thick of the dogfight that is the AL Central playoff race. The personnel moves made this winter are a more tangible reason for the club to believe.

By bringing in second baseman Josh Barfield, outfielders David Dellucci and Trot Nixon and relievers Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez and Aaron Fultz, the Indians have added six players with postseason experience to a young core that has yet to experience October baseball. The Indians hope that blend is a recipe for the success that eluded them last season.

With Opening Day right around the corner, this is the outlook for the 2007 edition of the Indians:

BATTING ORDER
1. Grady Sizemore, CF: Sizemore redefined the leadoff role with a 2006 season that saw him become just the second Major Leaguer in history to log 50 doubles, 10 triples, 20 homers and 20 stolen bases. The Indians are hoping for more of the same, and they hope Sizemore will step into more of a leadership role.

2. Trot Nixon, RF: Nixon was signed by the Tribe to shore up the No. 2 spot of the order against right-handers with his keen eye at the plate, which resulted in just 115 strikeouts over the last two seasons. But he was slowed quite a bit in camp after offseason back surgery.

3. Travis Hafner, DH: Hafner had an MVP-type season cut short by a broken right hand. But even with a month on the pine, his numbers were impressive -- a .308 average, 42 homers, 31 doubles and 117 RBIs.

4. Victor Martinez, C: Martinez's batting average has gone up each of the last three seasons, from .283 in 2004 to .305 in '05 to .316 last year. But his home run totals have decreased, from 23 to 20 to 16. The Indians will continue to give him some starts at first base against left-handed pitchers to keep his body fresh.

5. Casey Blake, 1B: The Indians are taking advantage of Blake's athleticism by giving him yet another new position. He moved from third base to right field in 2005 and will be headed back to the infield this season. When healthy last season, Blake was productive at the plate.

6. David Dellucci, LF: Brought aboard to get the starts in left field against right-handed pitching, Dellucci gives the Indians another veteran presence in the clubhouse. This spring, he demonstrated the type of pop in his bat that led to a 29-homer season with the Rangers in 2005.

7. Jhonny Peralta, SS: All eyes are on Peralta this season as he tries to recover from a sophomore season filled with struggle. His play in the field will be scrutinized, but he can temper that by improving his performance at the plate, where his average dipped 35 points, from .292 in '05 to .257 in '06.

8. Josh Barfield, 2B: The speedy Barfield gives the Indians a new dimension near the bottom of their lineup. He's expected to provide more RBI opportunities for Sizemore, though he could find himself batting in the two-hole by season's end.

9. Andy Marte, 3B: The Indians aren't asking much from Marte from the offensive side, where he's expected to go through the adjustments that come with a first full season in the bigs. The club prefers that Marte concentrate on his defensive game, where he was strong in the last two months of '06.

ROTATION
1. C.C. Sabathia, LHP: Sabathia certainly lived up to his ace tag last season, despite missing the first month with an oblique strain suffered Opening Day. He went 12-11 with a 3.22 ERA, including a Major League-high six complete games. That ability to consistently put the Tribe in a position to win is precisely what the Indians ask of the big left-hander. They'll also ask him to stay healthy and avoid the oblique injuries that plagued him the last two years. In '06, Sabathia became just the second pitcher in club history to post double-digit win totals in the first six years of his career, joining Hall of Famer Addie Joss.

2. Jake Westbrook, RHP: Westbrook has been a model of consistency the past three seasons. He's not overpowering, but he knows how to induce quick, groundball outs. With an improved infield defense surrounding Westbrook, the Indians hope he'll avoid double-digit losses for the first time in three years. Don't let the losses fool you, though, for Westbrook is a winner. He's won at least 14 games in each of the last three seasons. In that same span, he's thrown at least 210 innings a season. That durability is what makes him so valuable.

opening day 2007

3. Jeremy Sowers, LHP: The Indians couldn't ask for much more from a rookie than what Sowers gave them in the second half of '06. Called upon to replace an embattled Jason Johnson in the rotation in June, he went 7-4 with a 3.57 ERA, including a pair of complete-game shutouts. His challenge this season will be enduring the grind of a full big-league campaign and facing teams for the second and third time. Sowers doesn't get his outs with a blazing fastball. Rather, he tries to out-think hitters and make them mis-hit the ball.

4. Paul Byrd, RHP: It's rare for a 36-year-old to work a new pitch into his repertoire, but that's what Byrd's done this spring. He's added a split-finger for use against left-handers, who torched him for a .369 average in what was a difficult '06 season for the veteran. Byrd has endeared himself to his teammates with his willingness to help out the Tribe's young pitchers. But the Indians need Byrd, who's in the last year of a two-year, $14.25 million deal, to be as helpful on the mound as he has been in the clubhouse.

5. Fausto Carmona, RHP: For the second April in a row, Carmona will find himself filling in for an injured member of the Tribe rotation, as Cliff Lee's abdominal injury opened up the door for him to break camp with the big-league club. Carmona endured a rollercoaster '06 in which he dominated in the setup role, fell apart as the closer in the wake of the Bob Wickman trade and put himself back together with four encouraging September starts. Carmona has wicked raw stuff that includes a 97 mph sinking fastball, but he sometimes struggles to keep his tempo in check and his pitches down in the zone.

BULLPEN
Manager Eric Wedge had to laugh when he said he's confident this year's bullpen will be better than last year's, because it would be almost impossible for it to be worse. The '06 bullpen saved an MLB-low 24 games, suffered 27 losses and blew 21 saves. Wedge's confidence in the improvement on those ghastly numbers stems from the addition of experience with the acquisitions of closer Borowski, Hernandez and Fultz to complement Rafael Betancourt, Matt Miller, Jason Davis and Fernando Cabrera. The unexpected retirement of Keith Foulke hurt the bullpen's depth and ensured Borowski's health could very well be an X factor. But the Indians do have some quality insurance down on the farm in the likes of right-handers Tom Mastny and Ed Mujica and left-handers Juan Lara, Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez.

OPENING DELAYED
The Indians are hoping Lee will be back in the rotation by the end of April. The abdominal strain kept him from throwing for the better part of March. He'll begin the season rehabbing in Cleveland.

BURNING QUESTION:
Will Peralta improve on his fumbling, bumbling '06? The Indians simply need him to, as they don't have much depth in the middle infield. Peralta won't open the season in a high-pressure spot of the lineup, as he did when he was in the three-hole last year, so that change, combined with offseason eye surgery, could help his performance at the plate. But the 24-year-old Peralta needs to show improved range in the field. An Indians' pitching staff that relies more on pitching to contact than overpowering batters is especially dependant on the strength of the infield defense. If Peralta struggles again, the team will likely pay the price.

ON THE RECORD:
"We made improvements. But none of that means anything until we get out there and start playing" -- Sizemore, on the club's offseason moves.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.